Do Whales Have Teeth?

Believe it or not, some species of whale do in fact have teeth.

All whales are actually broken down into two categories or suborders which are known as the toothed whale and baleen whale suborders.

Toothed whales as the name suggest have teeth which they use to attack, capture and in some cases chew or tear apart their prey so that they can swallow and better digest their food.

Aside from whales all species of dolphin and porpoise also belong to the toothed whale suborder and also possess teeth.

While all toothed whales are born with teeth not all species are known to chew their food.

Some toothed whales use their teeth only to bite and grab their prey so that it can’t escape, but will end up swallowing their prey whole, while other toothed whale species appear to have little or no use for their teeth other than as a way to show dominance towards other whales, especially during mating periods.

The number of teeth a toothed whale has can vary greatly depending on the species.

Some whales (such as the narwhal) have only one or two teeth while others species (such as the short-beaked common dolphin) have as many as 240 teeth or more.

And other species of toothed whale (such as the sperm whale) may only have rows of teeth on their lower jaw and none on their upper jaw.

How toothed whales hunt for food

In order to obtain their food toothed whales will often hunt in large groups or pods using vocal sounds, visual cues and echolocation to organize their attacks.

For instance one groups of toothed whales may surround their prey and herd it into a small ball while another whale may swim through the ball and pick off the helpless fish.

Another method that is used by toothed whales is to force their prey into a corner or near shallow waters where it cannot dive or escape which makes capturing their prey much easier.

Species such as the killer whale (killer whales are dolphins) have been observed hunting sharks.

One group of killer whales will distract the shark while another killer whale sneaks up from behind or beneath the shark to flip it over and immobilize it so that they can successfully attack it.

They have also been observed using distractions to separate one marine mammals from its group or pod so that they can make an easy meal out of their prey and are even known to leap onto icebergs in an attempt to capture seals or sea lions.

The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales and its hunting methods are in a category of its own.

These large animals are known for consuming large squid and can dive up to 3,000 ft. in order to obtain their prey.

At these depths it has been difficult for researchers to obtain information on how these marine mammals hunt and what techniques they use to capture their prey.

Note: While toothed whales are known to frequently hunt in groups not all species will hunt together or in large pods.

Visual cues and echolocation

When a toothed whale locates a group or swarm of potential prey it may signal to other pod members that it has found a source of food.

Signaling may include leaping out of the water or creating a series of high-pitched sounds to alert other toothed whales of their finding.

Once the pod is alerted and ready to attack they may use echolocation to locate their prey and track the location of pod members so they can orchestrate their attack.

The hunting methods these marine mammals use and the way they communicate with one another can vary significantly depending on the species, their pod and the type of prey they are hunting.

Not all whales possess teeth

Unlike the toothed whale species baleen whales do not possess teeth but instead are born with baleen plates that have bristles attached to them.

The bristles of baleen whales are often said to resemble the teeth found on a comb and can be very thin and fine depending on the species of whale.

These whales capture their prey by swimming towards it with their mouth open engulfing large amounts of water along with fish, krill, squid and any other prey they are hunting.

They then expel the water out of their mouth using their tongue while leaving their prey trapped inside their baleen bristles.

The bristles act like a filter allowing water to pass through without letting their prey escape.

The bristles can also be thought of as a fence that keeps small animals from escaping but allows air to move in and out of it.

Because baleen whales do not have teeth they usually end up swallowing their prey whole and almost always search for small prey that is easily digestible such as krill (a common food for the blue whale which in most cases measures less than 2 inches in size).

Baleen whales are commonly refereed filter feeders because of the way they capture prey such as fish and krill and trap them in their baleen bristles while allowing water and other small sea sediments to escape through their baleen bristles, much like a filter.

Regardless of the species most baleen whales are unable to swallow large prey due to their small throats and almost all species are incapable of eating other marine mammals with the exception of the killer whale and false killer which are both dolphins and belong to the toothed whale suborder, therefore the likelihood of a human ever being consumed by a whale remains extremely low.

In fact one of the only species believed to be able to swallow a human is the sperm whale, which hunts giant squid that can measure in excess of 40 ft. long, however these marine mammals typically hunt for their food thousands of feet below the surface of the water, which is significantly deeper than a human is able to dive (without special equipment most people are unlikely to dive below 30 ft.).

Note: Even with specialized equipment humans aren’t able to dive to depths of 3,000 ft.